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A professional's guide to junk hunting part II

I posted up some pictures on Sunday to illustrate that day's Insider column in the Independent on Sunday magazine, which I write each week.

The theme was how to collect good junk and do interesting stuff with it. I interviewed Sarah Brunner, the co-presenter of a new Sky Arts 2 show, Design Dealers. She's a pro. She had some good tips. Now, to go with the images from last week, here is the extended version of what she talked about with bonus tips and images...

"Old toast racks (above) are also something you always see in nearly every charity shop – which, especially he 1930s ones, make great letter racks. Anything that looks nice and has a good form is worth picking up if it appeals to you. It’s just about thinking how you could get it into your home."

 “Lots of things can be made into lighting – including taxidermy. I love Alex Randall's work, especially this sparrow [swallow] light (above), which looks as it if has flown away and is trailing the lightbulb behind it."

Light by Dale Chihuly
"You also see people doing lots with old bottles and mason jars – it is quite a trend. And I like the work of Dale Chihuly, who has done hanging clusters of coke bottles and made chandeliers from them (above). Although neither of these projects are something the average person could or probably would try to do, nor afford to buy from the artists, they are still inspiring because it's about realising that you can take the ordinary and do extraordinary things with it."

Light by Alex Randall
"Brass instruments make great lights, too. People are doing some really beautiful stuff with them – and brass is set to be one of 2013’s biggest interiors trends, so worth taking a second look if you see a collection of old brass anything for sale on your travels. I have a euphonium in my own home as a light fitting: it took 15 minutes to do – you just buy a light holder and thread it through." (See the previous post on this topic for more details on this). Alex Randall also does interesting things with brass – check out her organ pipes and gramaphone trumpets, above).

"I keep finding lots of broken old glass beaded jewellery: I’m collecting it and using the beads to make Victorian-style glass bead flowers by threading them onto wire. These glass bead flowers (above, top) made from broken jewellery are heading over to Arrietty in Exeter, Devon, a lovely shop full of handmade and haberdashery. I'm giving hands-on upholstery courses there in March if anyone is interested." (See end of this post for how to contact Sarah direct.)

For sale on the Mint List, designed by Lilly's Lightbox
"Another thing to look out for is lightboxes – they can be fantastic for the gloomy corner that every home has: use them as they are [I know someone who has a little one as his bedside table – it casts a lovely glow] or you can have anything fixed to them – old photos, pictures of your children, vintage advertising signs… just take the lot to a sign-writer who will apply it to plexiglass and do the job for you if your craft skills don’t extend that far. It's not very expensive – I had some really big ones done and they only cost £100ish, so smaller ones would be much cheaper. I had an old 50s toothpaste ad with Marilyn Monroe in it that I really loved – and I took that to the sign-maker. The combination of light and colour really brightened a dark corner at my place."

The image above is in a brilliant new book, Teeny Tiny Gardening, which I will be writing about in full over the next few weeks. It is by Emma Hardy and published by Cico, and gives step-by-step instructions for this and other excellent plant-based projects. It is available to pre-order on Amazon

"I learned a lot from having to do retail window displays at my old junk shop Otto Retro in Devon (now under new and very good management – do check it out!): you have five seconds to grab people’s attention – one time, for spring window, I had loads of lovely 20s and 30s wooden dining chairs I’d collected, but broken and had no seats. So I made seed trays the right size for where the seats would have been and filled them with compost and grew grass where the seats would have been." (See photo above for a similar idea).

"Another great one for gardens is old filing cabinets – and you see LOADS of those at junk fairs or second hand shops, not even beautiful ones. Simply turn them onto their backs, remove the drawers and fill the cavities with soil and you have a perfect divided herb garden – and usually in great colours for gardens."

And here, in case you missed the original piece in the paper, are Sarah's original tips that go with the above-mentioned images I posted last week...

“Recognise what fills you with ‘object lust’ – then think how to get it into your home. For example, I LOVE 1970s glitter drum sets: wall-mounted, they’re shelves for rolled-up blankets; on the floor, a side-table. Approach junk-hunting by thinking: ‘what do I want to look at?"

“Teapots have many lovely uses. I like them as outdoor planters hung at intervals with wire.”

 “You can do LOADS with gorgeously old, paint-spattered ladders – like wall mounting one horizontally (with l-shaped hangers) and using it as a book shelf.”

“Find sources of inspiration before you go junk hunting: I particularly love James Plumb – they bridge the gap between art and utility with their repurposing.”

"Wooden skis are just beautiful. I like fixing them on walls – minus the foot holders – to hang fabric from. People are also making beautiful coat stands using three of them lashed together upright.” 

Does all that sound daunting? If you aren’t crafty – just source a good maker. Chances are, you’ll still have found a bargain, and a unique one that tells a story. You can also hire Sarah Brunner’s skills via the Design Dealers’ Facebook page


  1. Lovely post, the sparrow is a swallow though

    1. Thanks! And have amended Sarah's quote to describe the right bird!